Frieda Barkin Hennock
Lawyer and Federal Official
Frieda Hennock, the
first woman appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was born
in Kvel, Poland, the youngest of six girls and two boys of Boris and Sarah (Barkin)
Hennock. She came to the United States in 1910 with her parents and acquired citizenship
in 1916 upon the naturalization of her father, who became a real estate broker
and banker in New York City. After attending Morris High School in the Bronx,
Hennock entered Brooklyn Law School. She clerked in several New York law offices
to help pay for her education, since her parents opposed her choice of career.
She graduated in 1924, but could not be admitted to the bar until she was twenty-one.
Hennock became one of New York's most successful women
lawyers. She began her practice in 1926 with fifty-six
dollars, in the office of a woman friend. The following
year, she formed a partnership with Julius Silver, later
explaining that it had seemed beneficial to practice with a
man because of the barriers encountered by women lawyers.
The two dissolved the firm in 1934 because of disagreements,
and Hennock eventually received $9,000 and court costs from
a suit against Silver over a pertnership share in Edwin H.
Land's invention, the Polaroid Camera. A successful criminal
lawyer, Hennock said she changed to corporate law because
the emotional drain was less and because as a woman she had
to work doubly hard to win criminal cases. She served as
assistant counsel to the New York Mortgage Commission
(1935-1939), studying low-cost housing, and lectured on
current developments in law and economics at the Brooklyn
Law School (1936). In 1941 Hennock had the distinction of
being the first woman and the first Democrat to be
associated with Choate, Mitchell and Ely, one of New York
City's most prestigious law firms.
Hennock's appointment as the first woman FCC commissioner in
1948 was due to her role as an energetic campaigner and
financial contributor to New York Democratic party politics
and to the strong support of India Edwards, director of the
Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee, who
pressured President Harry S. Truman to appoint women to
federal jobs. The Senate confirmed the appointment on June
20,1948, despite the strong Democratic partisanship she had
revealed to the Republican majority on the committee.
Hennock gave up a substantial income from her law practice
to take the FCC position, but said she has "sufficient
means" to accept the relatively low government salary. In
her acceptance speech Hennock observed: "It seems
fundamental that in this field [communications] --
so peculiarly affecting women -- the viewpoint of this sex
should be represented." To a Milwaukee Journal
reporter she remarked: "Women haven't had nearly the
recognition they deserve. If they have brains and ability
they should not be penalized merely because they wear a
skirt." Hennock represented women well, generally working
from 8:30AM until10:00 or 10:30PM; she also studied
electronics and engineering to master communications
technicalities. On occasion, however, she tempered work with
dancing, riding, tennis, golf, and swimming.
At the FCC, Commissioner Hennock's major effort was directed
toward reserving channels in the developing television
medium for educational use. Although she argued
unsuccessfully that a minimum of 500 channels should be
saved for noncommercial purposes, the commission did agree
in 1952 to reserve 242 channels. Hennock next prodded
educators to apply for channels even thought funds to
operate the stations might not be immediately available. she
told a New York Daily News reporter that "educators
were asleep at the switch in standerd radio" and she feared
they would also fail to utilize educational television.
Dramatizing her cause, Hennock spent countless weekends in
cities from coast to coast promotimg educational television,
and wrote a dozen articles for magazines ranging from the
Saturday Review of Literature to Broadcasting.
Many more stories were written about her and her quest.
In June, 1953, Hennock spoke at the opening ceremony of the
first educational television station KUHT-TV, in Houston.
she later wrote of this event: "They said I would not get a
channel, that I would not get an application and that a
station would never get on the air. Well, it was a pretty
good feeling to be there in Houston and see educational
television become a reality."
Hennock dissented from FCC majority decisions in most
aspects of broadcast regulation. She advocated FCC
preferential treatment for the weaker transmitters of UHF
stations, opposed editorializing by broadcasters, and,
convinced that television was "just too important a medium,"
denounced multiple ownership of broadcast facilities.
Hennock also argued for stricter controls on children's
programming. She told the investigating Senate subcommitte
that the continued subjection of children to a television
diet of violence, brutality, crime, and horror should be
sufficient cause for loss of license. Her persistent efforts
and forceful arguments helped to ensure that serious
attention was paid to these issues. As a gadfly, Madame
Commissioner, as she was frequently called, did not rely on
her energy and legal knowledge alone, but used her
photogenic appeal, penchant for high fashion and spectacular
hats, and even an occasional deluge of tears.
In June 1951, toward the end of her FCC career, Hennock
became a focus of controversy when she was nominated by
President Truman for a federal judgeship. Probably because
she was female, Hennock failed to win the support of the
American and New York City bar associations, although
several women's bar associations, several women judges, and
her FCC colleagues, including Chairman Wayne Coy, backed
her. The ultimate reason for her failure to win Senate
support was probably her friendship with a married federal
judge. Subjected to unusually personal questioning by the
Senate Judiciary Committee, Hennock denied an improper
relationship, called the charge malicious and infounded, and
asserted that she had merely helped the man in various
political campaigns. In her testimony, she also explained
the details of her lawsuit against Silver and admitted to a
small private wager that Franklin D. Roosevelt would be
elected to a third term, relatively minor improprieties.
Nevertheless, she withdrew her name.
After President Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to reappoint
her, Hennock left the FCC in 1955 and assumed a less hectic
pace. she married William H. Simons, a Washington, D.C. real
estate broker, in March 1956, and they lived in the capital.
Her husband recalled that she observed the Orthodox Jewish
prayer ritual nightly and had strong and affectionate ties
to her parents financially until their deaths, and also
aided a sister and a niece. After leaving the FCC, she
practiced corporate law, first with the firm of Davies,
Richberg, Tydings, Beebe and Landa, and then on her own.
Hennock remained active in Washington society and politics
until her death there in 1960 of a brain tumor. Her memorial
is educational television.
Sidebar: This web page
author wonders if we would have had shows such as Sesame Street, the Muppets,
Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, The Wonderful World of Disney, or a host of
other wonderful shows without this lady.
in "Notable American Women/The Modern Period"
written by Maryann Yodelis Smith and ©1980 by Radcliffe College
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